The title of this post must seem odd considering Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia was himself a pretty good catcher in his day.  Not a great catcher, but a solid one.  He played 13 seasons in the big leagues, all of which were with the Dodgers from 1980 to 1992.  He enjoyed a career-best 5.6 fWAR season in 1985; the season lovingly displayed in this video brought to you by this week’s Annotated Boxscore.

Scioscia wasn’t exactly a barnburner offensively with a .259/.344/.356 slash line and 68 career home runs, but was a two-time All-Star and hit well enough to support his above-average defense.  Baseball Reference compares him most closely to catchers like Butch Wynegar, Alan Ashby, and managing contemporary Joe Girardi.

So why does Mike Scioscia hate good catchers?

It seems obvious that he does.  After all, he’s used Jeff Mathis more than anyone else at the position this season.  In his 73 games played, Mathis has a .180/.228/.261 slash line with two home runs and is at best an average defender.  And this is not some one-year aberration.  Mathis has a career .196/.258/.302 slash line with a 45 wRC+.  That means that offensively, he hasn’t even been half as good as the average player over his career.  In parts of seven seasons, Mathis has cost his team 1.7 wins according to FanGraphs.  As Sam Miller wonderfully described on Monday, Mathis was once a promising prospect, but he’s now 28 and showing no signs of improvement; it may be time to find an alternative.

Unfortunately for the Angels, the backup catcher this season has been Bobby Wilson.  Wilson is also 28 and hasn’t fared much better in his career than Mathis with a 73 wRC+ in 102 career games played.  He’s worse than Mathis defensively and is basically a replacement level catcher.

It appears as though the best catching option for the Halos was traded to acquire Vernon Wells (himself a replacement-level player in 2011).  Yes, Mike Napoli, the man traded to Toronto and then later traded to Texas happens to be posting a career season in the Lone Star heat for the team the Angels happen to be chasing in the standings.  Currently, Napoli has a .295/.389/.589 slash line and a 164 wRC+.  As he did last season in Anaheim, Napoli has split time between first base and catcher, but he has made significant improvements behind the plate.  He’s by no means a Molina brother, but he is no worse than Mathis.  Even last year, Scioscia refused to play Napoli at catcher, giving him only 59 starts there despite his improved defensive numbers.

This season, the Angels have given some time to top prospect catcher Hank Conger, a player ranked fourth in the organization by Baseball America this past winter.  Conger was a first round draft pick in 2006 and he rose through the minors with a .298/.361/.466 slash line, including a .300/.383/.470 line in AAA over the past two seasons.

Conger has played in 53 games this season with the Angels, but has started only 44 at catcher.  There’s little question that there is significant work to be done defensively for Conger as he ranks as a far-below-average defensive backstop, and he hasn’t exactly lit it up at the Major League level at the plate either with a .204/.283/.340 slash line.  Despite that, he has been no worse than Mathis or Wilson and he certainly has far more potential being five years younger with a much higher ceiling.

GM Tony Reagins was the one who traded Napoli, but there’s no question that Scioscia was the one who ran him out of town, and now Conger seems to be at risk of getting the same treatment.  Since being recalled from AAA two weeks ago, Conger has played in only three games, starting only two.  He’s 0-11 in those three appearances, but should be given the playing time to work through his offensive struggles.  Sitting him on the bench in favour of Mathis is downright foolish.

Despite the mismanagement of both Scioscia and Reagins, the Angels find themselves only three-and-a-half games behind a vastly superior Rangers team.  A Rangers team that has received 3.9 wins above replacement from Napoli, while Mathis and Wilson have combined to be right around that replacement line.  It isn’t a stretch to say that if Napoli was the Angels starting catcher, they may just be in first place today.

Comments (5)

  1. I’ve always wondered if saber stats miss a catcher’s ability to call a good game. I know that’s a total cop out, but isn’t it possible that Scioscia (a former catcher) just can’t stand the way Napoli manages the game? I know JP has heard similar complaints. If there’s a stat to measure this please correct me.

  2. I think as COMMAND F/X becomes more and more readily available, game calling and “receiving” skills will be better understood. A nice peak into Command F/X and what catcher defense means here on Fangraphs.

    That said, most games are called from the bench now.

    Good piece, Travis!

  3. Yeah COMMAND F/X looks like it could be really cool if it becomes more refined. The problem is, it’s not always easy to tell where the catcher really intends the ball to be…sometimes they’re diving all over the place trying not to give up location to a runner on second.

    Simply quoting catcher ERA is misleading because it hasn’t shown itself to be a repeatable skill.

    Another interesting little fact is that Napoli has thrown out 10 of 24 would-be basestealers this season; a 42% mark. Small sample for sure, but that’s impresive none-the-less. All of the metrics (and his own coaching staff) say that he’s made impressive strides defensively over the last two seasons.

    And thanks Drew!

  4. I don’t disagree with anything here, and if Scioscia was good enough for Mr Smithers, he must’ve been a pretty good catcher.

    However, might there be any other factors as to why Napoli has improved offensively so much this season? Also, please stop reminding the Angels that Vernon’s not worth $23MM this year.

  5. @Provan: To be honest, it’s probably a lot of luck. His BABIP is slightly elevated over his career norm and he’s also got a high HR/FB ratio. All of his other batted ball stuff is consistent with his career norms, such as Line Drive Percentage, and Groundball Percentage, so I think a little bit of it is bound to regress next season.

    Another factor is definitely the ballpark he plays in. Playing most of your games in Arlington as opposed to Anaheim will certainly help you look like a better hitter.

    Even a regressed Napoli in Anaheim is much MUCH better than Mathis/Wilson/Wells et al.

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